Wildfire Smoke Can Impact Your Health

Smoke from wildfires continues to impact citizens in parts of the Commonwealth and the Department for Environmental Protection, which is monitoring air quality in affected areas, recommends minimizing exposure.

Smoke contains a mixture of gases and particles that can irritate your eyes and respiratory system.  Breathing smoke can cause bronchitis and aggravate existing heart and lung problems – and can even lead to premature death in people with these conditions.

People who may be more susceptible include:

  • Those with heart or lung disease, such as congestive heart failure, angina, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema or asthma may experience health effects earlier and at lower smoke levels than healthy people.
  • Older adults.
  • Children whose respiratory systems are still developing and who are more likely to be active outdoors.

How can you tell if smoke is affecting you? 

Smoke can irritate the eyes and airways, causing coughing, a scratchy throat, irritated sinuses, headaches, stinging eyes or a runny nose.  If you have heart or lung disease, smoke may cause breathing difficulties.

It’s important to limit your exposure to smoke, especially if you may be susceptible.  Here are some steps you can take to protect your health:

Stay alert to local air quality reports. 

Environmental Response Teams are taking air quality measurements in affected areas each morning and evening.  These measurements are then provided to the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management (KYEM) and to the Kentucky Department of Public Health (KDPH) for the dissemination to the general public.  These measurements help emergency management and health officials determine appropriate actions to protect public health.  Stay alert to smoke-related news coverage or health warnings based on the latest air quality measurements.

Check the Air Quality Index (AQI).  The AQI is based on data from local air quality monitors and recommends precautions you can take to protect your health.  It is updated hourly and can be accessed at eppcapp.ky.gov/daq/ or by visiting airnow.gov/ and typing in your zip code.

Use common sense.  Not all communities have air monitors that measure particle pollution.  If it looks smoky outside, it’s probably not a good time to mow the lawn or go for a run.  And it’s probably not a good time for your children to play outdoors.

If you are advised to stay indoors, take steps to keep indoor air as clean as possible.  Keep your doors and windows closed (unless it’s extremely hot outside). Run your air conditioner if you have one, but make sure the fresh air intake is closed and the filter is clean to prevent bringing additional smoke inside.

Dust masks aren’t enough.  Paper “comfort” or “dust” masks are designed to trap large particles like sawdust. These types of masks will not protect your lungs from the fine particles in smoke.  Wet bandanas or tissues held over the face are equally ineffective; smoke particles can easily pass through them and into your lungs.

Only special “particulate filter” masks can help protect your lungs from smoke.  These masks are labeled with the word “NIOSH” and either “N95” or “P100” and may be sold at hardware stores or pharmacies.  To be effective, you should choose a mask that has two straps that go around your head – do not choose a mask with only one strap or with straps that just hook over the ears.  This website provides more information on choosing and using a mask.

If you have heart or lung disease, if you are an older adult, or if you have children, talk with your doctor about whether and when you should leave the area. When smoke is heavy for a prolonged period of time, fine particles can build up indoors, even though you may not be able to see them.